Over the past 9 days, hundreds of CLA members have selflessly and tirelessly given their time to assist thousands of detained persons all across Ontario. Their efforts, combined with the efforts of our dedicated Judges, Justice of the Peace, Crown Attorneys, court staff, Legal Aid duty counsel and other justice system partners, have played a critical role in the release of approximately 1600 persons from custody in Ontario during this time.

At the same time, extensive efforts led by the Attorney General for Ontario in tandem with other Ministries, have led to substantial and noteworthy improvements in the technological infrastructure throughout Ontario’s Courts and has led us, in a very short period of time, to the front door of an operational “virtual courthouse” system that is designed to enable the Court to continue to address urgent matters relating to persons still in custody.

Despite these remarkable efforts and notable technological achievements, it is clear that the state of readiness to run courts virtually varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some are already ready to make the transition and operate a virtual court effectively. In our view, however, some other locations will need more time and continued enhancements (technological, infrastructure and otherwise) to reach this laudable goal.

The governing body of the CLA is unanimously of the view that we must immediately begin a staggered withdrawal of our on-ground volunteer services. We are assessing the state of technological readiness of each and every courthouse in Ontario on a daily basis. For those Courthouses that, in our view, appear to be reasonably ready and able to proceed as a virtual court without the presence of private or Legal Aid duty counsel assisting in person, then our work in that jurisdiction should be considered to be done. We can and will provide ongoing support when our help is needed, but the expectation is that this will only be done remotely. For locations where the technology and related infrastructure simply does not enable the system to function adequately in the absence of a defence or Legal Aid duty counsel on the ground, we will continue to help facilitate the voluntary in-person attendance of our members.

We have always stressed, and continue to stress, that the single biggest concern is for the health and safety of our members. There are significant risks that may come with attending any public location in Ontario, and the willingness of each and every one of our members to attend is strictly on a voluntary basis, understanding that those risks exist. No one has been, or will ever be, “required” to go. Indeed, we will reserve the right to recommend a full withdrawal of our efforts immediately, if warranted by health and safety considerations that we will continually assess on an ongoing basis.

Consistent with this policy, we have come to the opinion that the following jurisdictions no longer need the co-ordinate effort of the CLA to facilitate the attendance of our volunteers (current to March 25, 2020 – additional courthouses will be added to this list as circumstances change):

  • Barrie
  • Bracebridge
  • Chatham
  • Cobourg
  • Cornwall
  • Leamington
  • Newmarket
  • Orangeville
  • Ottawa
  • Owen Sound
  • Sarnia
  • Walkerton
  • Woodstock

With respect to the Brampton Courthouse, significant health and safety concerns were publicly raised in an article published last week (https://bit.ly/2UsrdgU). As we are not satisfied that these concerns have been suitably addressed to date, we are simply unable to recommend to any of our members to attend that location, and we will not facilitate any in-person CLA volunteers; at least until these matters have been dealt with. Indeed, we strongly recommend to all counsel, whether members of the CLA or otherwise, to not attend this Courthouse in person at the current time. We will continue to re-assess our position with respect to Brampton on a daily basis, taking into account all updates and other relevant factors.

To be absolutely clear, our continued willingness to facilitate the in-person attendance of our volunteers is not indefinite. Technological improvements alone may not be sufficient in some locations to remove the need for the presence of in-person defence or duty counsel. In those jurisdictions, we call on all other justice system participants to re-assess policy decisions during this pandemic, such as the need for the use of sureties or the use of “interim bail”, which, if implemented, may then facilitate the reasonable operation of a virtual court.